I tend to be a stealthy sinner—a cloistered screw-up. For most of my life, I've managed to fly just under the radar of blatant rebellion.
When I was 12, I made obnoxious prank phone calls and covertly removed (read: stole) a dog-eared copy of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask from the local library. The dean of women at the college I attended failed to appreciate the fact I mooned a fellow dorm mate. As a 22-year-old, first-year elementary teacher, I came "this close" to my principal catching me entertaining fellow colleagues with an over-the-top impersonation of said administrator.
A few years later, my screw-ups took a more serious turn when as a mother of two children, I blew up in anger and acted out in a manner that terrified both the children and me.
I'm no saint—not by any stretch of the imagination. But as hard as it is to believe, I somehow managed to keep 99.9 percent of such things hidden. As someone who regularly attended church and who appeared to manage a happy family, I avoided any glaring attention to the shadow side of my life—but not without great cost.
My lying about my spending led to financial problems in my marriage. Covetous thoughts robbed me of friendships and contentment. The teenage anger that sent me reeling into a fit of self-mutilation exploded 12 years later in outbursts of rage and abusive anger toward my two oldest children. And when alcohol beckoned me during periods of loneliness and depression, I heeded its call.
So there she is, Julie Barnhill in all her glory.
Maybe you're thinking, Yeah, so you told us a few secrets from your life—none of them can compare to mine.
I'm sure if we played a game of "Top This!," many of you could beat me hands down. But seeing who has the most horrifying secret isn't the point. The point is, we need to embrace the truth that we aren't alone in our secret places. No matter what hides beneath layers of deflection and defense mechanism, God is there, in our midst.
The longer I live, the more desperate I become for a revolutionary forgiveness that up-ends the hidden, surreptitious elements of my life. But here's the proverbial rub: Confession for confession's sake easily turns into a tabloid moment not unlike daytime television talk-show tell-alls. It's not enough to spill the beans. Genuine confession leads us to radical forgiveness, available only through Christ, which covers whatever we've done, no matter how bad it seems.
Jesus Christ knows our secrets, and they can never stop the love he directs toward us. They do, however, create a barrier between us and the shame-free life of freedom he desires for us. We tell Christ our secrets so we might find redemption, rescue, and ultimately, eternal life. We share our secret places with trusted friends so we might know the reality of divine healing through the flesh-and-blood relationships of those we love on earth.
Unfortunately, too often we focus upon issues and circumstances, sins and failures. When this happens, we're vulnerable to the Father of Lies. He'll do whatever he can to make us believe God could never forgive us. He'll pretend there are things we could do that would make God's love for us end. On occasion, I've swallowed three of his favorites myself.
Lie #1: You're the only one who's done the things you've done. Few things in life have sent me hurtling down a course of condemnation and guilt like the secret of my mothering and anger several years ago. While I came across as pretty together outwardly, I knew the verbal and physical boundaries I crossed with my children behind closed doors. I wondered if I was the only mother who treated her children so horribly.
So one morning I made a confession of sorts to a group of friends—hoping to hear I wasn't alone. But there was dead silence. And I heard the Enemy whisper, I told you no one else has done the things you have. You're despicable and beyond help.
Although I'd gotten control of my angry outbursts, I believed this lie for close to six years. By the end of the seventh, God had gently drawn me back to the Bible truths I'd learned and believed since earliest childhood: a) If I confess my wrongs, he'll forgive them, time after time; b) If I allow him, he'll change my thought patterns and give me the strength to do what's right; c) If I fail, Jesus remains faithful, for it's impossible for him to do otherwise. I confessed (spoke them out loud, in fact) these eternal truths and saw my heart and actions change in a way I can only describe as miraculous. At last my heart and home were filled with forgiveness, laughter, kindness toward my children, and peace. I vowed if I ever had the opportunity, I would speak openly about my struggles.
Three years later, I had the chance. Before a packed audience, I told hundreds of mothers the reality of where I'd been and assured them they weren't the only ones who'd said, done, or thought whatever they were currently beating themselves up about.
Women lined up to speak to me. Some stood quietly, with their heads bowed. Others fought to maintain their composure as the Enemy's lie was exposed and defeated. Their conversations, e-mails, and written responses will be forever seared in my memory. I'll never grow tired of hearing another mother say, "Thank you for being honest! The Lord has truly shown me I'm not the only one who's done the things I've done."
Lie #2. God can (will) never use you now. I believe we usually want to obey God. Or if nothing else, we want to have the desire to! I believe women long to have their lives count for something far more eternal than their current jean size or updated qualifications on a résumé. Yet how many times have we judged ourselves by these superficial standards? Think of the times you've gazed in a mirror, despising the woman staring back at you. You've bought the Enemy's hideous lie that because of your failures, God can never use you now.
I'm living proof that God can and does use us, despite our past mistakes. The reality is, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture can drive a wedge between us and Christ's love if we'll confess and seek such revolutionary forgiveness. God's truth can dispel the Enemy's deceit—the truth about God's love and the rescuing nature of his character.
We can take hold of this promise: "I will show you where to go. I'll give you a full life in the emptiest place—you'll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past. You'll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again" (Isaiah 57-58, THE MESSAGE).
Lie #3: If anyone finds out what you did, she'll never love, understand, or forgive you. The truth is, some of those you consider friends may leave you once they find out certain truths. It's happened to me—from both sides. Friends have dropped me once they learned about the depth of some of my messes. And I once dropped a friend cold turkey after learning some uncomfortable details about her life. Friends come and friends go, but a true friend sticks by you like family (Proverbs 17:17). I wasn't faithful to my friend, but Jesus always is. Time and time again he promises he'll never leave us. So take a deep breath, exhale, and relax in this unchangeable truth: Jesus never gives up on us. "If we give up on him, he does not give up—for there's no way he can be false to himself" (2 Timothy 2:13, THE MESSAGE).
So there you have it. Why have I admitted I don't have it all together? It's because I've lived enough years and experienced enough failure to know my secrets and sins will never be taken care of in and through my own power or any "I can do it" thinking.
God knows I've tried . . . and failed miserably. He knows my messes of magnificent proportions penetrate the core of who I am as a woman and as a believer. He knows I long to experience a radical redemption that delivers freedom—not just for the moment or month—but forever. My soul cries out for a rescue that goes to whatever length, whatever width, whatever height, and whatever depth, to deliver me from secrets and shame (Romans 8:39, NASB).
Maybe you feel redemption's too far from reach. But if you're tired of pretending you have it all together, now's the time to take action. For far too long, women—Christian women in particular—have believed they're the only ones dealing with shameful issues, agonizing regrets, and more than a skeleton or two hanging in their closet. If we dare to open up to God, ourselves, and others, we can experience an exhilarating freedom and peace. Just listen to some women who have written to me who have:
"I had an abortion when I was 18 years old. No one knows about it. For 14 years, I placed a small black mark on July 12th on my calendar, and have grieved for the child no one knew about and the young woman who bore the guilt alone. But no more, Julie! Now I know I'm not alone, and for the first time in my life, I truly believe God is bigger than my secret—and willing to forgive."
Or, "I confessed my secret to my girlfriends last night. I have shaken and thrown my three-year-old daughter. I also told them about my being physically abused as a child. It feels like a boulder has been lifted off my heart."
The truth is, secrets only hold their power when they're hidden. Once revealed in the light of God's love, they lose their power. Why not make today the day you clean those secrets out of your hidden closet?
And you might be surprised who else struggles with the same things.
Adapted from Radical Forgiveness. Copyright © 2005 by Julie Ann Barnhill. Used with permission of Tyndale House Publishers.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.Click for reprint information on Today's Christian Woman.
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